“The function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers.”–Ralph Nader
Watching children interact from a distance is a teaching experience. If an adult encroaches, often the play is modified or transformed from child-driven to adult-led. Still, when parents join in a play scenario already in progress, which is led by children, (only by invitation), it can serve to strengthen relationships.
A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to observe this. It was a rainy, messy weekend, and potential energy was building among children throughout the neighborhood. Insightful adults knew that the lid was almost off the kettle, so one set of parents invited some new school acquaintances to meet at an indoor facility in the downstairs of a basketball gymnasium for a “play date.” When I first entered the ancient wrestling room, no longer being used for its original purpose, I could see the remnants of old mats and other equipment. My impulse was to straighten up, clean up, or perhaps find another location for the playtime. But what did I know?
As soon as the children arrived, clad in athletic gear and bursting at the seams with enthusiasm, one of the adults rolled out a ball. Within minutes, teams had been fairly chosen, making sure ages matched up evenly. There was a nine-year old girl, an eight- year old boy, 2 five-year old girls who were classmates, and two little boys, ages two and three-years old. Now the youngest team members would fade in and out of the activity, but the older children were kind and patient. In fact, they attempted to engage them in meaningful game participation, allowing them free kicks when necessary. It was a full-fledged soccer match, and no adult had yet left their space along the wall where social conversation was flowing easily and enjoyably.
Obviously in this particular space, the children had modified the rules, along with the boundaries, but this was a genuine competition. The game was not for a trophy, but for bragging rights; and these kids knew a lot about competing. Bringing their fundamental understanding of the game from their limited years of experience, they were able to make it interesting and challenging. In other words, they were red-faced and sweaty within a short time. An interesting statement made by the older girl filled me with delight. I heard her take her leadership role and implore the players to unify. “Hey! C’mon, we’ve got to play together!”
At last, an adult was invited to enter the fray, but he was unimposing and soon became just another player. This dad knew how to interact without having to be in charge. It added an element of fun for the children for him to participate. Once in the game, his youngest (the 3 year old boy) became emboldened to test his own skills. With each success, there were resounding cheers from the other players and adults. You could envision the confidence growing by leaps and bounds inside him by the look on his face.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has published research regarding play, in which there is this remarkable finding:
“…research has provided additional evidence of the critical importance of play in facilitating parent engagement; promoting safe, stable and nurturing relationships; encouraging the development of numerous competencies, including executive functioning skills; and improving life course trajectories.”
There’s so much to be gained for children by unstructured play, but too often it is substituted with sedentary behavior, not only on rainy days, but most days. Screens, video games and flash cards or other intellectual enhancing pursuits are exchanged for a valuable learning experience that touches mind, body, and soul. Relationships are actually built, and enhanced, and joyful rewards continue beyond the hour and a half of play in the old basement space on rainy days, and in the backyard when the sun comes out.
- Wise parents are intentional about including regular unstructured play times for their children in their busy calendars.
- Children leading children in unstructured play gives rise to growth, health, skills and rewards that last beyond the playing experience.
- Parent-child relationships are strengthened through playing together without parental dominance.